In Ahmed Saadawi’s award-winning novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, Hadi the rag-and-bone man picks through the debris and carnage after the daily explosions and suicide attacks terrorising his city. It is 2005 and Hadi and his fellow Iraqi citizens are living an increasingly calamitous existence under the US-military invasion and occupation that has unleashed chaos and murderous sectarian hate. Thousands of people, including civilians, are dying at the hands of US forces, sectarian militia or proliferating criminal gangs, or being blown apart by bombs, with Baghdad bearing the brunt of the violence.
Hadi, a Baghdadi version of the 1970s British TV comedy creation Albert Steptoe, complete with horse-drawn cart, unkempt appearance and ongoing hygiene problem, has never been the same since his younger partner Nahem (and the firm’s nag) had been blown to pieces by a car bomb. ‘It had been hard to separate Nahem’s flesh from that of the horse’. Now, Hadi trawls bombsites, selecting remanants of victims he finds to put into his canvas sack and take back to his half-collapsed ruin of a house, situated in the poor Al-Bataween district of the city. In his scrapyard shed he sews together a whole body, made up of the different bits and pieces he has found. The discovery of a blown-off nose completes the project. He tells his cronies with whom he hangs out with at a local coffee-shop that his idea is to hand over his creation to the authorities ‘because it was a complete corpse that had been left in the streets like rubbish’, that deserved a proper burial.
However, before Hadi could carry out his plan, a suicide bomber driving a stolen rubbish truck detonates his load, and amongst his victims is a young man whose body is completely blown to bits, down to a pair of smouldering boots. There is nothing left of him for his wife and family to put into a coffin and bury. His soul is left stranded without a body to go back into. Alarmed that it will be stuck forever in this limbo, the soul of the young man searches Baghdad for a corpse to inhabit so that he can be properly laid to rest. Hovering over Al-Bataween he spots Hadi’s creation – a body without a soul – and descending, sinks into it. The post-modern Promethean monster thus animated comes back into being; resurrected to go forth and seek out (at least initially) all those responsible for the deaths of the victims from whom he is composed and deliver them the ultimate retribution. The monster becomes popularly known as the Chismah, or Whatsitsname, and as the city’s military and police authorities gradually become aware of its diabolical existence, the hunter becomes the hunted.
Saadawi’s novel was first published in 2013, on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s gothic original. However, Saadawi is not principally concerned with producing a modern remake of a classic, or even to give a familiar story a modern twist. He assumes only that the reader knows the basic Shelley narrative, either through the text or through the countless film versions we are familiar with, and then riffs off it to tell the story he wants to pass on – the apocalypse visited upon the city of his birth, and the enduring suffering of the ordinary people he sees around him, living and dying amongst the ruins.
Saadawi has a natural empathy with the city’s working class and transient inhabitants. He was born into a proletarian family in Sadr City, uncharitably described by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his account of post-invasion Bagdad Imperial Life In The Emerald City as ‘a squalid warren of 2.5 million Shiites’ wedged into ‘the slum’s labyrinthine alleys’, mired in their own filth. The events in Saadawi’s Frankenstein are centred on the Al-Bataween district, that sits hard by the eastern bank of the Tigris river, across from the city centre and a few kilometres away from Sadr City. Al-Bataween was once a prosperous and well-regarded area originally developed by Baghdad’s Iraqi Jewish population, known for the distinctive Art-Deco houses favoured by its residents. Its Jewish inhabitants have long since left or been driven out, it remains only the site for the city’s Jewish cemetery and lone synagogue. Al-Bataween also became home for the city’s Christian, including Orthodox Armenian, population, before a long slide into urban decay through the latter half of the twentieth century. During Iraqi’s 1970s and 80s economic boom it drew a mainly African migrant worker population housed in residencies converted into cheap boarding houses and hotels. It became regarded as a poor multi-ethnic ghetto, its elegant past now a distant memory. In Saadawi’s novel Al-Bataween is kept alive by a disparate band of inhabitants, thrown together by history or circumstance, who struggle through good means or foul to cling onto what remains of the place they all call home. We can imagine that at the time the story is set our characters are sustained somewhat by the hope that the bad days will at some point come to an end, and even that the good times will return. However, we know that in reality Baghdad and the rest of the country is perched on the edge of a sectarian precipice and will shortly freefall into an intensification of cruelty, murder, mayhem and despair.
Saadawi was one of the few Baghdadi writers and members of the literary and intellectual class who stayed behind in Baghdad after the US-led invasion in 2003 and witnessed its aftermath. Although he is the author of three novels – The Beautiful Country (2004), Indeed He Dreams or Plays or Dies (2008), Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) and a volume of poetry Anniversary of Bad Songs (2000) – his stock-in-trade is journalism and documentary film-making. It is the journalistic attention to economy of language as well as an ear calibrated to the voices of those overlooked or rarely listened to, that marks out Saadawi’s approach to novelistic form and content.
The author was in London in May 2018, promoting the English translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad on the eve of the International Man Booker prize award, for which his novel was shortlisted. At a London book-reading, accompanied by his fine translator Jonathan Wright, Saadawi explained the incident that gave rise to the original impulse for his story.
One time while he was reporting from a Baghdad hospital in the wake of a bombing, Saadawi came across a man crying in the autopsy room. ‘When I asked him why he was crying, he said his brother had been killed by a bomb, but that his body could not be found. A hospital attendant had told the man “I have a part of your brother – his foot”. When the man asked the attendant “Can I have that part of my brother’ the attendant had replied “Shall I gather other parts together to go with your brother’s foot and put a full body together?” This is why the man was crying’.
For Saadawi it is not so much a narrative about a monster, but an attempt to encompass the monstrous things that humans are capable of inflicting upon each other. As Saadawi says, ‘the problem here is that I cannot escape “Iraq”. I mean, this is the place I know, and it is the one place that primarily matters to me more than any other. I want to create a vision that is honestly constructed about what is going on. I believe that many of us in Iraq – artists, intellectuals, and average people – are still unable to comprehend the dramatic and monstrous events that took place since April 2003, and until this day’.
The style of writing Saadawi employs in Frankenstein has the feel of reportage about it. He argues that his technique sits within the Arab oral folk storytelling tradition: ‘I treat classical historical writings in Arabic as narrative texts. Although they claim to address real events, they are full of miraculous events and mythical and metaphysical stories’. Saadawi also knowingly plays with literary post-modern devices – as we read the novel we are always aware that Saadawi the author is pulling its narrative strings on our behalf, playing with us and the characters. He inserts a version of himself into the story in the guise of the libidinous young and ambitious journalist Mahmoud al-Sawadi, eager to impress his cynical editor, Ali Baher al-Saidi. The young man with the surname closely resembling that of our author, has managed to get an exclusive interview with Whatsitsname, recorded by its creator/father, Hadi, on the reporter’s Dictaphone. He writes the story up and hands it over to his boss.
Mahmoud gave Saidi an article headlined ‘Urban Legends from the Streets of Iraq’. Saidi liked it immediately. When Mahmoud did the layout for the magazine, he illustrated the article with a large photo of Robert De Niro from the film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Mahmoud wasn’t happy when he got a copy of the issue, especially when he saw that his headline had been changed.
‘Frankenstein in Baghdad,’ Saidi shouted, a big smile on his face.
The clipped sentences and spare descriptive passages Saadawi employ carry the responsibility of honestly describing the terrible cyclical nightmare that Iraq has yet to shake itself from., Fantastical and the real have merged. And fiction appears more succinct than fact.
It is as if we are reading the testimony of a survivor, attempting to carefully recall what happened, and using ‘matter-of-fact’ language as a way of tamping down and avoid triggering the deep emotions and trauma the event has lodged in their psyche. Take this example of an early passage in the novel describing the aftermath of the latest car bomb: ‘Trails of black smoke continued to rise from the cars, and flames licked small burning objects scattered on the pavement. The police came quickly and set up a cordon. Injured people were groaning, and bodies were lying in heaps on the asphalt, covered in blood and singed black by the heat’.
This distancing, or Verfremdungseffekt in Brechtian terminology, also takes us out from the individual sense memory towards a more collective overview. After all, as Saadawi told his London audience, ‘history is not concerned with our personal feelings’. He sees the role of the countless venal self-serving figures that have paraded across Iraqi’s political stage since 2003 as shameless manipulators of the raw emotions of those they seek to influence and direct. Saadawi has, at least for now, abandoned his early belief that post-Saddam ‘there would be freedom, that change was still possible. I believed as an intellectual and a writer and journalist I could contribute to this task of making us great again’. However, he went on to say, ‘it isn’t the role of literature to cast a positive light on things – to satisfy society’s view of itself. All societies see themselves as great civilisations. But I think it is the job of literature to lay bare the truth. Beautiful things are rare and far between’.
Beautiful things are few and far between. Reading Saadawi’s work and listening to him talk, his despair at the seeming inability of any force to break the cycle of murder and revenge that is inexorably grinding his country and its people into the dust comes to the fore. The Chismah embarks on a series of nocturnal murders that it regards as a simple matter of natural justice: ‘The prayers of the victims and their families came together for once…the innards of the darkness moved and gave birth to me. I am the answer to their call for an and to injustice and for revenge on the guilty’. It complains that some, particularly those in authority, have misrepresented its acts: ‘they have turned me into a criminal and a monster, and in this way they equated me with those I seek to exact revenge on. This is a grave injustice’.
However, after an initial bout of bloodletting, the Chismah finds itself suffering from mission creep. It is alarmed to discover that bits of the reconstructed body are starting to rot and fall off. One night he finds his eyesight going cloudy as his right eye disintegrates. ‘I pulled at it gently, and it moved with my hand. Then the whole thing came out, like a dark lump, and I tossed it aside’. Thinking that it will literally fall apart before it’s work is done, the Chismah is compelled to kill random people in order to keep going. The Chismah reconciles itself to this new development by arguing that the end justifies the means – his innocent victims become ‘a sacrificial lamb that the Lord has placed in my path’. Thus, the canker of revenge begins to eat away at its host. We are horrified by this macabre turn of events. But who would not acknowledge that justice always contains a greater or lesser element of retribution and vengeance? Saadawi touches on our complicity in the use of violence as a legitimate method of bringing about societal and political order. As Saadawi has commented elsewhere: ‘There are many messages [in the novel]. One of them is that with this war and violence, no one is innocent’. This is what finally halts the murderous progress of the Chismah: ‘“There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal”. This sentence drilled its way into his head like a bullet out of the blue…This was the realisation that would undermine his mission – because every criminal he had killed was also a victim’.
Saadawi also examines the way in which religious justifications smooth the path towards immoral acts committed on a grand scale. He talks about how the early days of strife in Iraq produced a series of men, each one claiming to be the Mahdi who successfully attracted numbers of fanatical followers before being killed by rivals or sinking back into obscurity. In the novel the Chismah is surprised to finds itself the focus of religious fervour: ‘I was amazed how many young gunmen bowed down to me in the street. All of them believed I was the face of God on Earth’. Saadawi turns this phenomenon into a dark comedy but the serious point is still made.
Although Saadawi avoids any relationship between his novel and the 1813 original, I do think there are tentative parallels to be drawn between the two authors and their particular historical circumstances. In both cases there is a rejection of previous grand narratives and ideologies that promise to deliver heaven on earth, but seem only to succeed in dragging us all that little bit closer towards hell. In Saadawi’s case there is the monolithic falsehood of Baathist socialist national unity, torn down by the Americans, only to be replaced by another lie embodied in fragmented religious, ethnic and sectarian identities stoked by mirror-image competing demagogues. As Saadawi told his London audience: ‘The figure of the Chismah is full of symbols. For example, the primordial Iraqi citizen is a body made up of the different sects and ethnic groups of Iraq. This appears in the novel in the form of satire. Behind it is the idea that since the foundation of the nation state to the fall of Saddam that we have forged all Iraqi identities into one Iraqi identity. This has proved to have failed as an idea, and an ideology. The other face of the Chismah is that in times of crisis, especially in the Middle East, the idea of a religious saviour emerges’.
In Mary Shelley’s case there was a growing disenchantment with European Romanticism as a radical political expression of Enlightenment ideals. Her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley on the other hand was steadfast in his belief in the French Revolution. He refused to be infected by ‘the gloom’ that pervaded his fellow Radicals, many of whom had become disillusioned in the revolutionary project. In the forward he wrote for the third edition of Frankenstein, Shelley held up his wife’s fictional creation as ‘a tremendous creature’ who had been driven to monstrous acts by its mistreatment.
However, Shelley’s later interpretation appears at odds with his wife’s original intentions. As she was writing Frankenstein, Mary Shelley was starting to challenge the certainties of the Radicalism espoused by her husband and her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. She seems to have come to the belief that the promise of the French Revolution and what she saw as its violent excesses had cleared the path for reaction, embodied in the expansionist dictatorship pursued by Napoleon Bonaparte she had witnessed first-hand during a trip across Europe. Frankenstein was, and remains, as a nightmare of Romantic idealism, the dark side of utopias that propelled the imagination of Romantic myth-makers.
Thus, when Ahmed Saadawi told his London audience of his conviction that the most important thing about literature was ‘to give victory to man[kind], not ideologies’ he was perhaps drawing himself closer to the creator of the original Whatitsname that he has so stylishly resurrected in present-day Baghdad.